The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Best Pitchers of the 21st-Century: Part 1

Who are the best pitchers of the 21st-century?

This is the first installment of a three-part series that will examine the top pitchers the 21st-century has had to offer.

Let me be clear, I am not attempting to discuss which of the current young arms of this generation will ultimately prevail as the greatest pitcher of (at least the first quarter) of this century.  Therefore, you won’t find David Price, Steven Strasburg, or Matt Harvey on this list.  To make this list, a pitcher has to A) Have accumulated at least 30.0 career WAR, B) Not have accumulated the vast majority of his career WAR value in the 20th-century, C) Cannot have a career ERA over 4.00 and D) Cannot have been primarily a relief pitcher.

These criteria mean that, for example, Roger Clemens, who won two of his seven Cy Young awards in this century, and even though he accumulated 30.5 WAR since 2001, will not be on this list because the overwhelming majority of his career value (78%) occurred in the 20th-century.  Also, if you throw a broken bat at Mike Piazza, I’m just not very inclined to add you to my list in the first place.  Have a nice retirement, sport.

I narrowed my list down to 25 pitchers because, quite frankly, no one cares who the 26th, 27th, and 28th best pitchers of this century have been.

Although I used WAR as my starting point, this is not simply a list of the top 25 accumulated WAR’s since 2001.  I have also taken into account peak value, hardware won (Cy Young awards / MVP’s), and few others stats, both old and new(ish):  wins, complete games, earned run average, ERA+, and WHIP.

The pitchers who are most likely to rank high on this list are those that have A)  Been real, real good  B) Had the good fortune to begin their careers just as this century got started, and C)  Have enjoyed a  continuous run of success (as opposed to being really good every three years or so.)

Some of the pitchers who are on this list are still quite young (Felix Hernandez, for example), and will undoubtedly rank higher on a list like this in 5-10 years.  But this list reflects where a pitcher has been to this point, not where he may ultimately end up.  Other pitchers (Johan Santana, for example), are more likely to have dropped a bit in 5-10 years, simply because some of these young pitchers may overtake them.

Some of the win totals or strikeout totals I mention for a particular pitcher might not reflect that pitcher’s career totals, because we are only taking into account what a pitcher produced in this century, not what he has accomplished during his entire career.  Some pitchers on this list began their careers in the late-20th century, but I am not counting their 20th-century stats.

Finally, when I say that a particular pitcher was the best pitcher of this century, obviously I mean to this point, but it would be boring to continue to add, “to this point” to each declarative sentence, so I won’t do that.

No, seriously, who are the best pitchers of the 21st-century?

All right, here’s the list, with a bit of explanation of how they got here:

Roy Halladay

Roy Halladay (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

1)  Roy Halladay –  Halladay was the best pitcher of the 21st-century, and it’s not particularly close.  His career WAR of 65.4 is the highest on this list.  His 190 wins in this century ranks second only to C.C. Sabathia’s 205.

His 2.93 ERA also ranks second.  His 65 complete games are by far the most of anyone on this list.  No other pitcher reached even 40 complete games.

He won two Cy Young awards, finished second in the voting twice, third once, and fifth twice.  For seven consecutive seasons, he increased his strikeout totals each year, topping out at 220 in 2011.

During his final six seasons, he never walked as many as 40 batters in a year.  In 38 post-season innings, Halladay allowed just 28 base-runners, and posted an ERA of 2.37.

Halladay was probably one of the top 30-40 pitchers of all time, and should someday be enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

2)  Johan Santana – It’s possible that Santana may become one of the great, nearly forgotten pitchers of this century.  His career as an everyday starting pitcher was brief, and during some of that he toiled out of the media spotlight in Minnesota.

Yet, a case can be made that Santana should one day be enshrined in Cooperstown.  Like Halladay, Santana won two Cy Young awards.  He also finished third in the voting two other seasons, and he finished fifth in the voting one other time.

He led the A.L. in WHIP for four consecutive seasons, posting a WHIP below 1.00 in three of those years.  He also led the league in strikeouts three times, while striking out over 200 batters for five straight seasons. He won three ERA crowns, and led his league in WAR for pitchers three times, finishing second another time.  He has also thrown the only no-hitter in Mets history.

His 50.6 WAR ranks fourth-best this century, and is higher than several pitchers already in the Hall of Fame.  He has been the best left-handed pitcher in the 21st-century.

3)  C.C. Sabathia – It would have been easy to have ranked Sabathia ahead of Santana.  He has been one of this century’s workhorse pitchers since he debuted in 2001.

English: CC Sabathia

English: CC Sabathia (Photo credit: Wikipediabathia has been one of the ultimate workhorse pitchers since his rookie year of 2001.

Sabathia’s ERA of 3.60 ranks just 19th-best on this list, but let’s remember that he’s pitched in the tough A.L. East for the past five seasons.  Sabathia has a Cy Young award to his credit, and has also finished in the top five in voting for that award in four other seasons.

A durable pitcher, Sabathia has notched over 190 innings pitched eleven times over the past twelve seasons, and has never pitched fewer than 180 innings in any season during his entire career.

He is just one of three players to have made over 400 starts in this century.  His 205 wins are also the most in the 21st-century.  His 54.4 career WAR is second only to Halladay’s, and he is also the only pitcher over the past 13 years to accumulate over 2,000 strikeouts.

Entering his age 33 season in 2014, it’ll be interesting to see how much gas he has left in the tank.  He’s probably not in Hall of Fame range yet, but with another couple of useful seasons, he’ll certainly be in the conversation once he retires.

4)  Roy Oswalt – Oswalt enjoyed a seven-year run of excellence at the beginning of this century that was rivaled by only a handful of other pitchers.  From his rookie year in 2001, and through the next six years, Oswalt posted the following ERA+’s:  170, 144, 148, 124, 144, 150, 140.  After a couple of mediocre seasons, he posted an ERA+ of 145 in 2010 at age 32.  Seven seasons of at least a 140 ERA+ in ten years is a remarkable accomplishment.  Almost as remarkable is that few people seemed to notice it.

While Oswalt never won a Cy Young award, he did finish in the top five in voting in five seasons.  His career ERA of 3.36 is among the top ten since 2001, and if you remove his final, ill-advised 90 innings when he attempted to make a comeback pitching for Texas and Colorado (of all places), his career WAR would be over 50, about the same as Johan Santana.  Oswalt’s closest career comps are probably Bret Saberhagen, David Cone and Ron Guidry.  Nice company, don’t you think?

5)  Tim Hudson –  Hudson has toiled away exceedingly well without much fanfare for a decade and a half.  Eight times in this century, Hudson has reached an ERA+ of at least 120.  His 174 wins since 2001 (he has 205 wins dating back to 1999), are the fourth-highest total among the pitchers on this list.  His 2,475 innings pitched are among the top five.

His 47.4 WAR since 2001 is ranks sixth on my list.  If you remove his injury-shortened seasons, Hudson has averaged right around 15 wins per year  since the beginning of his career.  While seldom one of the very best pitchers in the league, Hudson has often been the most reliable starter on his team, and has finished among the top ten pitchers in WAR in six seasons.

Similar to pitchers like Jimmy Key, Bob Welch or Orel Hershiser, Hudson may not be in line for Cooperstown immortality, but he has produced a yeoman’s career of solidly above-average work that should not be easily dismissed.

Justin Verlander

Justin Verlander (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

6)  Justin Verlander – With eight full seasons under his belt, Verlander has certainly demonstrated that he has been one of the finest pitchers of this century.

Though his 40.7 WAR ranks just tenth overall, that’s primarily because some of those who rank higher have pitched in several more seasons than has Verlander.

I have little doubt that in a couple of years, he should probably rank among the top five in WAR in the 21st-century.

Over the past five seasons, Verlander has been about as dominant as they come, winning the Cy Young / MVP award in 2011, finishing second in Cy Young voting in 2012, as well as three other top ten finishes in the voting since 2006 (the season in which he was also voted A.L. Rookie of the Year.)

Verlander has topped 200 strikeouts in each of the past five seasons, pacing the league in that category three times.  He has also averaged 225 innings pitched over the past seven years, leading the league three times in that statistic.

Verlander’s career ERA+ of 127 is the same as Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson, and Curt Schilling.  Entering his age 31 season in 2014, it will be interesting to see if Verlander can continue this run of dominance he has established over the past several years.  If so, he may be regarded 80 years from now as one of the very best pitchers of the 21st-century.

Cliff Lee

Cliff Lee (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

7)  Cliff Lee –  Cliff Lee doesn’t walk batters.  Other pitchers in baseball history, such as Greg Maddux and Bret Saberhagen, were fantastic control pitchers, but Cliff Lee may have them all beat.

Over his last 121 starts, Lee has walked a total of just 120 batters, averaging slightly less than one walk per start.  He has not walked as many as 45 batters in a year in any of his past seven seasons.

In 2010, he walked just 18 batters in 212 innings pitched, also leading the league with seven complete games.

Not merely a control pitcher, Lee has struck out over 200 batters in each of the past three seasons, averaging right around a strikeout per inning.

Cliff Lee has had a bit of an odd career in that he showed promise early on, posting an 18-5 record in 2005, but then he crashed and burned, pitching poorly in ’06 and even worse in ’07.  At that point in his career, at age 28, Lee’s career hung in the balance.

Then Lee posted a fantastic comeback in ’08, with a record of 22-3 for Cleveland, leading the league in wins, ERA, ERA+, and winning the Cy Young award.  Since that season, Lee has continued to refine his craft, posting the second highest WAR of his career just last season (7.3.)

Lee’s overall WAR in this century, 42.4, has been topped by only about a half-dozen other pitchers on this list.  In addition to his Cy Young award, he has four other top ten finishes in the voting for that award.  The question is, can Lee continue this run of excellence in the coming years?  He will be entering his age 35 season in 2014, so it remains to be seen.

8)  Felix Hernandez – I was tempted to rank King Felix ahead of Cliff Lee, but here’s why I didn’t.  While Lee and Hernandez each have 86 career losses, Lee has 139 wins to Hernandez’s 110.  Now, I’m well aware of all the arguments regarding the value of wins as a statistic, and I’m also aware that Hernandez has made 42 fewer starts in his career than Lee has, but Lee’s .618 win-lost percentage is vastly superior to Hernandez’s .561 mark.

I don’t think a difference that large can simply be attributed to run support, or lack thereof, or a dramatic difference in each team’s respective bullpen.  I think Cliff Lee has simply been a slightly better pitcher than Felix Hernandez as been.

Lee also has a slight lead on Hernandez with a WAR of 42.4 to King Felix’s 38.7.  Lee’s WHIP, 1.19, has also been slightly better than Hernandez’s 1.20, and we have to keep in mind that Hernandez has had the advantage of pitching in the vastness of Safeco Field over the past nine seasons.

This is not to cast aspersions on Felix Hernandez.  He has a Cy Young award to his credit, along with a second, a fourth, and an 8th-place finish.  And, entering his age 28 season in a couple of months, he could now just be hitting his stride toward what could easily be a Hall of Fame-worthy career.

If he merely pitches as effectively over the next half-dozen seasons as he has up to this point, he will have earned a trip to Cooperstown.  It wouldn’t hurt his chances, however, to move on out of Seattle to a market where he might receive more attention, not to mention more run support.

Clayton Kershaw

Clayton Kershaw (Photo credit: SD Dirk)

9)  Clayton Kershaw – There may be some readers who object to Kershaw being on this list at all, as he’s only been in the Majors for six seasons.  There will be others who wonder why I didn’t rank him higher.

Kershaw has quite possibly produced the finest six-year stretch of any pitcher in baseball in this century.  Over the past five years, he has posted ERA’s, in order, of 2.79, 2.91, 2.28, 2.53, and last season, 1.83.  Not too shabby.

Although he won’t turn 26-years old until next month, he already has 1,206 career strikeouts, and has led the league in K’s in two of the past four seasons.  He has led his league in WHIP for three years running, and has accumulated as much WAR in six years (32.2) as Matt Cain (a fine pitcher in his own right) has accumulated in nine seasons.

Over the past three seasons, Kershaw has won two Cy Young awards, while finishing runner-up in the middle year.  Kershaw has averaged over a strikeout per inning in his career, and has also averaged about three strikeouts for every base on balls.  Clearly, all that stands between Kershaw and a prominent place in baseball immortality is continued good health.

10)  Brandon Webb – Brandon Webb is one of those pitchers who was well-respected at the time, but who will probably never quite get the recognition he deserves for his career accomplishments.  To begin with, let’s consider the fact that Webb toiled in the desert air out in Arizona, where balls carry nearly as well as they do in the high altitude of Colorado.  In other words, Webb pitched his home games in a hitter’s park in a hitter’s era.  Yet, he accomplished some remarkable things.

Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Brandon Webb

Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Brandon Webb (Photo credit: Al_HikesAZ)

Webb pitched just six seasons, but somehow, he accumulated a higher WAR (33.3) and more wins (87) than Kershaw.  Also, while Kershaw’s ERA+ is a lofty 146, Webb’s was a very similar 142, and Webb pitched 139 more innings in his career than Kershaw has done to this point.

Webb won the 2006 N.L. Cy Young award, and then finished runner-up in the voting in each of the next two seasons.  His ERA+’s in his six full seasons were:  165, 128, 125, 152, 158, and 140.  Over a five-year period, from 2004-08, inclusive, Webb averaged nearly 230 innings pitched per season, which obviously took a toll on his right arm.

After 198 career starts, over which he posted an ERA of 3.27, Webb was unable to come back from a shoulder injury, and he retired from baseball at age 30.

That’s a look at the first ten pitchers on my list of the best pitchers of the 21st-century.  In the second installment of this series, we’ll take a look at pitchers #11-#20.

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28 thoughts on “Best Pitchers of the 21st-Century: Part 1

  1. When I first saw Tim Hudson’s name, I went “Really?” But you know what? For a decade, you know that you could stick him in your rotation and get 200-plus innings and 4.0 WAR and up like clockwork for a decade, and that’s an awfully valuable thing to a ballclub, plus he gets points for being better than Sid Hudson.

    • (As an aside, I saw on the Wahoo Sam article you linked to on your Twitter feed that Koufax was one of the pitchers you didn’t mind getting no-hit by. I assume that means you’re still a little bitter about Bob Moose.)

    • Yeah, Hudson has had a long and productive career, not merely a “compiler,” whatever that means, but an actual front-line starter. Any rotation would have been lucky to have him in it.
      Cheers, Bill

  2. Starting backwards, you say Webb somehow had a higher WAR than Kershaw. I’m not too into this lists things and still think of WAR as a great band from the 1970’s, but isn’t the wins over a replacement player a specific science? Or maybe you meant “somehow” as in surprising?

    Also, isn’t this century thing a lot like the decades thing? Something previously discussed here. A sort of artificial construction that snubs pitchers who had their best seasons at the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st?

    Nice photo credits. I guess WAR doesn’t require attribution in terms of footnotes. That’s a relief because I still need a few more decades to memorize the numbers like Pedro Martinez’s accumulated WAR between 1997-2002…52.2.

    • Hi Steve, The point of comparing Webb to Kershaw was that while I think most baseball fans are well aware of what Kershaw has accomplished, it might come as a surprise to some fans that Webb was pretty close to being as good, once you factor in the home ballpark.
      A couple of thoughts on the great pitchers who straddled the century mark. At first, I considered beginning with the year 2000 (as opposed to 2001), but decided not to for two, admittedly arbitrary, reasons. The first reason is simply technical. 2001 actually is the first year of the decade (and you’re correct, this has come up before.) But the second reason, much more to the point, is that I decided that the primary purpose of this list is to highlight the players who may have been overshadowed by the the prior generation of pitchers (Clemens, Maddux, Glavine, etc.) who are just now entering HOF eligibility, and for whom more than enough has already been written about. Do we really need another list that reminds us how great the pitchers of that generation were?
      Having said that, a couple of pitchers (Pedro being one) whose careers almost literally straddled the century mark, (spoiler alert), may just be featured on my next list. Still, what I’m going for here is, what happens when we move further away from the 20th-century? What would that list look like?
      Thanks for the comments,

      • i was hoping Cory Leubke would one day be on this list, but he got elbow complications for a second year in a row. almost all of 2012 gone, 2013 gone and now he’s out for 2014 too. big bummer. damn! he only had the 2011 season, but he was looking real good.

      • Yeah, I actually had him on my fantasy baseball team that year, and he helped me out quite a bit. It always sucks when promising young pitchers like him go down with a serious injury. Hopefully, he’ll eventually come back strong again.
        Cheers, Bill

      • You mentioned pitchers going forward, but that obviously makes Halladay kind of useless and Hudson too and Oswalt and Santana and Webb as well. I’d like to Yovani Gallardo sneak into the second list. Hopefully, his K/9 will overshadow his WAR being a little lower. I’m a big fan of strikeouts as an indicator of greatness but at the same time I like Mark Buehrle. Come to think of it, Buehrle could be on this list, no?

        Wasn’t that a blast getting into Luebke in 2011? I went to the PAdres network to listen to Dick Enberg and saw him pitch out of the bullpen and then later in that season he got inserted in the rotation and if I remember right, he was striking out tons of batters early in the game and then ran into some trouble with base runners, but what was most impressive were strikeouts in the fifth and 6th inning. He threw a lot of pitches and was usually done by the 6th; done by the Padres pitch count anyway.

      • Hey man, Yeah, all those guys are burned out already, but they had to be included on a list of best of the 21st-century. Pitching is always in flux, but there are some guys on the list who are either in the middle of their careers, or are (hopefully) still in the early stages of what could be big things. Gallardo, despite all the K’s, has never really put it all together the way it seems he should have by now. Maybe ’14 will be his big breakthrough. A better ballpark for pitchers could help his case, too. As for Buehrle, let me not give anything away right now, O.K.?
        Take care, Bill

      • Buhrrrrrrrr. Winter ain’t done yet. What’s a big breakthrough year? Gallardo is what he is and that is huge strikeout totals, lots of walks and not going deep into games. The expectations and hype for him have nothing to do with him.

      • But he may yet gain a bit more command and control, which will help improve his overall numbers, and allow him to go deeper into games. He’s only going to be 28-years old. It’s not a given that we’ve already witnessed the best he has to offer (which, admittedly, is certainly very decent.)

      • Absorooootely, but Gallardo drives me nuts…getting way out in front of of hitters and then knit picking the count full and then freaking walking him or giving up 2 strike home runs.

        But you got the crystal ball…i hope you’re right, but I still think he is what he’s been and that’l be that and that’s good enough, but then again he’s up for free agency after this season. I don’t know if you factor in that in your projections….

        ya know that… let me put on some extra make up and wow the big bosses in my contract year….Personally, I think it’s a bunch of boloneee, but I hope he makes your second list…of course my reasons are somewhat ignorant due to fanaticism.

      • Well, you can’t spell fanatic without “fan”, so I guess there’s nothing wrong with that! Not sure about the whole contract year thing, either. Probably matters with some players, but I would think most of these guys are just happy to have a job where they’re not cleaning bathrooms for a living.

      • I doubt that. If that we’re the case they woudn’t ask for so much money. And cleaning bathrooms and other menial labor is way under rated if you ask me. I’ve been doing it my entire life and wouldn’t want to do anything else….except nothing at all, but I’ll get that with retirement eventually.

        There’s a lot to be said for physical labor 8-5. The exhaustion at the end of the day turns the mind on…but I guess AMerica breaks up everything into classes…a blue collar white collar song and dance capitalism thing.

      • My best baseball conversations occurred when I was loading packages into freezing trucks on 3rd shift during the Christmas rush back in both 1981 and ’82. After we got off work just as the sun was coming up, we’d drive out to the beach with a six-pack of Molson Golden, watch the sun come up, then go to the local diner for breakfast. I still remember the sting of ketchup working its way into the scars on my fingers from handling all those thousands of packages.

      • Then you oughta know what a good life that can be and I’ll just speak for myself, but I prefer being anonymous in 8-4, working the plank with a bunch of fellow under achievers than any great society ambition including the tough life of a major leaguer, way more glorified than it really is.

      • shit, 1981-1982…those were the glory years for expos and brewers. a couple of shots of anything in the early morning…vukovich maybe came up in conversation…oglivie? oh yeh, you were a big steve rogers fans, no?

      • Graduated from high school in ’81 and went immediately to work for UPS. The Mets sucked at the time, and it was a strike year, but I do remember those fine Expos / Brewers teams of the time. I think secretly, even from myself, I was a closet Expos fan. Definitely a Steve Rogers man, as well as Tim Raines. Although I usually root for the N.L. in the World Series, I rooted for Harvey’s Wallbangers in ’82.

      • That 1982 brewer’s team was under .500 into early June when they canned Buck Rodgers and replaced him with Harvey. He sat on his ass and waited for home runs and that’s just the what that Brewers team needed. I always remember that season when teams start out bad.

      • Bill, i think you would make a damn good politician and i mean that in the best of ways.

      • I was a Poli-Sci Major in college, but would rather study it and read about it rather than get all that involved in it.

  3. Allan G. Smorra on said:

    Good job, man. This is a very reasoned and thorough post. I look forward to the next installment.


  4. Hernandez’s lack of run support has been a key complaint of Mariners fans tired of watching losing teams: that season where he went about 13-12 and won the Cy Young is the best example. They also focus on his big performances against Northeast teams, especially on the road. If you give him 16 more wins, not quite two per season, and assume they’d be converted losses, Felix would be 126-70. His profile, at least, should increase this year with Cano’s arrival, and maybe somehow the Seahawks’ season will rub off on the Mariners a little bit.

    • Hi Arne, I think that in about ten years, King Felix will certainly be regarded as one of the best pitchers of his era, and he’ll probably win another Cy Young award along the way. I also tend to think things more or less even out in the long run. In about six years, he’ll win 21 games for the Yanks, despite posting the highest single-season ERA of his career. As for Cano, I tend to think that Safeco will suppress his offense to a certain extent, though he should still be a well above-average second baseman.
      Thanks for the comment.

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